Manual mode on your smartphone camera – Clipchamp video production tips

If you’re reading this, odds are you have a fairly current phone. It didn’t take long for Smartphone manufacturers to realise what a selling point the camera was. With the popularity of Instagram, Snapchat and a myriad of other apps, people craved more control over their phone cameras. 

In this tutorial we’ll show you how to take better photos by using your smartphone camera in manual mode. The coolest thing about learning manual photography on your phone is that it will help you understand the manual functions on just about any domestic or commercial camera. This is a great place to start if you want to eventually produce your own videos.

Manual mode limitations

The camera functions you have available depend on your manufacturer. For reference, we used the Huawei Mate 9 and an iPhone 7. At the time of publishing, manual camera controls only work on your phone’s rear camera and only for photography. While researching this article, we found an app called FiLMiC that gives you manual video controls. Given how fast smartphone technology moves though, it’s only a matter of time before we’ll have manual controls on the front camera and for video as well.

Switching your smartphone camera into manual mode

Manual photography is enabled by either swiping or hitting the button at the bottom of the Camera app. The manual controls include the

  • spot meter (a set of closed brackets),
  • ISO,
  • shutter (presented as S),
  • exposure value (EV),
  • focus options (Usually AF-C by default) and
  • white balance (AWB).

The cool thing about learning these controls on your phone is that these are more or less the same functions you get on an actual video camera. 

Light meter

The light meter in your smartphone’s manual settings decides what parts of the image are used to determine exposure. It gives you three options:

  • Multi, which exposes for everything in the scene (what looks like two closed brackets),
  • Centre, which exposes for the middle of the picture (a single dot) or
  • Spot, which lets you pick a spot on the screen (a dot with brackets).

If you’re shooting an underexposed subject in a brightly lit area, spot exposure lets you pick the spot you want the exposure adjusted for. If the light is fairly even in a space multi works best.

ISO

ISO is the sensitivity of the camera sensor. In the days of film, photographers used different sensitivities of film stock for different scenarios. You’d use high ISO film stock for night scenes and low ISO stock for direct sunlight. Digital cameras adjust this by using the ISO. The one thing to be careful of, especially with smartphones, is that a very high ISO results in images that look grainy and noisy. Adjusting the ISO is best left until you’ve set everything else and just want to fine tune things.

ISO 3200 on the Huawei Mate 9. Super crusty

Shutter

This is the speed at which the digital shutter opens and captures the picture. It’s measured in fractions of a second. Shutter 1/500th opens at one five hundredth of a second while 1/4000 is one four thousandth of a second. Shutter affects motion blur. Fast shutter is used to capture subjects moving extremely fast with almost no blur.

Photos of birds catching fish or athletes leaping through the air are shot at very fast shutter speeds. The subject looks frozen in motion because the image was captured so quickly. The drawbacks of a fast shutter speed is that it opens and closes so fast, less light reaches the sensor.

To test this out, we’re got our colleague Anastasia to wave at the camera.

Shutter 1/50. Hectic motion blur

Shutter 1/50 lets in much more light but captures more blur. That’s why Anastasia’s hand is a smear of colour. Humans doing a slow activity like standing still or walking can be photographed at around 1/50 to 1/100 with no blur. Anything more vigorous, like jumping or running, needs a shutter of 1/500 or more.

Shutter 1/600. No blur at all

EV (exposure valuation)

Exposure valuation, or EV, refers to the combined exposure of the shutter and aperture. Aperture measures how much light travels through the lens. It also affects depth of field.

A wide open aperture lets in more light but has a shallower depth of field. Like Aperture, EV controls how much light goes into the camera, but unlike photographic aperture, EV does not affect depth of field.

Some cameras come with software that mimics the low depth of field seen in portrait photography (called Bokeh), but this is done digitally and has nothing to do with the lens.

Auto-focus

Next is auto-focus. AF-C stands for auto-focus continuous and is good for holding focus on a moving subject. AF-S is auto-focus single and is good for keeping one stationary subject in focus. Then there’s manual focus which gives you full control over the focus with a nifty slider. You can still set a focus point by touching the screen with these modes active.

AWB (auto white balance)

White balance controls how colours look on camera. Hitting AWB brings up a series of preset colour temperatures. These include settings for common environments like outdoor, indoor, overcast and florescent lighting. The really cool option however is manual colour temperature. This lets you pick the temperature in degrees Kelvin.

As a rough guide, sunlight is usually 50K to 60K and has a blue tint. Old indoor tungsten fixtures give off an orange light that is around 32K to 34K. Domestic fluorescent tubes are around the 45K mark and give off a green hue. LEDs are normally white to blue, so 60K to 70K.

Anastasia in direct sunlight with a colour balance of 2800K. The wrong colour temperature will make the colours look weird

If you’re using a mix of different lights temperatures, playing around with manual colour temperature will help you find something that looks as close to white as possible. The best way to tell is by doing a white balance.

Anastasia in direct sunlight with the correct colour temperature of 5500K

To do this, put a white object or white piece of paper in the scene. Auto White Balance should find any white material and use it to colour balance the scene. To do it manually, scroll through the colour temperatures until you find one that looks correct.

Time to play

So that’s a fair bit to take in, but let’s start experimenting and practice manual mode photo taking. By default ISO, Shutter and white balance are auto and the EV is zero. Start experimenting with just one of these functions and see how it affects your photos.

Unless you’re doing it deliberately, avoid hugely blown out highlights and dark shadows. 

But most of all, congratulations! In addition to manual smartphone photography, you have learned most of the manual controls that all cameras use. You’ll be slinging around a Canon 5D in no time. For now, have fun using your new skills!

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This article is part of Clipchamp’s “video production for the rest of us” series. Use our tips to create awesome-looking videos and photos for your next digital projects. Clipchamp has the tools to help you with that, for instance our free online video editor